Serena Williams, as befits the grand dame of tennis, began the pursuit of a calendar grand slam with a regal swat on the first evening of the 2015 US Open.
This time, it was the turn of the poor Russian Vitalia Diatchenko, in her second appearance in New York, to fall, almost literally, before the finest player of modern times in a mere half an hour in the Arthur Ashe Stadium.
It was not just one-sided, it was farcical. Diatchenko, who has had surgery on her left achilles, served lollipops from the start and retired in tears after winning just five of the 37 points played – as one might expect of someone who pulled out of her last tournament in Vancouver and was double-bageled in Stanford recently. She had her chronically weak ankle strapped at 0-5, then gently rolled over, to the bemusement and mixed sympathy of the crowd.
No doubt her pain was soothed by the $39,500 first-round appearance money, and a conciliatory hug at the net from Williams. Whether she should have even been on court is another matter. Chris Evert on ESPN said if Diatchenko dragged herself on to court just to play her idol, “that would be a shame”.
It was a muted counterpoint to the annual on-court hoopla to set the tone of the loudest fortnight in tennis, as much a rolling circus as a tennis tournament, especially under the stars. Those in the sky will be blotted out when the new retractable roof goes across next year as the elements dictate, but the stars below are not disappearing just yet. The brightest and oldest of them all, certainly, looks like staying around for quite a while.
Don’t worry about the Serena Slam and its variations; this is the Serena Open. Her image is all over New York. She is the focal point of every discussion. Even the locker room, the most inward looking of war rooms, whispers about it. The WTA has devoted a page to her mountain of statistics, updated daily.
To set out the stall for her remaining six matches, these are just a few of the relevant statistics to watch as a remarkable athlete stares history in the face.
Only Maureen Connolly in 1953, Margaret Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988 have done what Williams is trying to do here. If she does complete a sweep of all four majors, she joins Graf on 22 slam titles, the most of the modern era, and just two behind Margaret Court’s all-time record. Victory would also give her seven US Open titles – her fourth in a row – to pass Graf’s mark of six.
She is also trying to become the fourth woman to win five majors in a row, alongside Court and Martina Navratilova, who each had six in succession, and Graf.
Since she nearly died from blood clots in her lungs in 2011, Williams has won eight of 13 grand slams she has contested, all of them under the guidance of Patrick Mouratoglou, her French coach and partner since they got together in Paris in 2012. Before they met, she had won 523 matches and lost 107, batting .830, as they say here. Since, her win-loss mark is 209-15 for .933. Probably Babe Ruth never dreamt of those numbers.
Victory on Monday night, devalued as it was, keeps the world No1 and defending champion – as she is at all the slam venues – on schedule for a notional quarter-final against her sister, Venus, who earlier overcame a mid-match blip to get past Monica Puig in three sets.
The odds of the sisters meeting at that point of the tournament are monumentally slim, as are the chances of Serena failing to progress past the Dutch qualifier Kiki Bertens in round two.
Bertens, who beat the one-time Croatian prodigy Mirjana Lucic-Baroni 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 out on Court 12, told the Guardian, “It’s going to be tough. She’s a great player and can make here the one-year slam, but I’m looking forward to it. I hope I can enjoy it. I played [Petra] Kvitova at Wimbledon, so I hope I can move forward from that.”
She revealed Williams’s reach for the grand slam was a topic difficult to totally avoid among players, however focused they are on their own games. “There is a lot of respect for Serena, because what she has done is amazing. I think she’s the best player ever. Mentally she is so strong. Even when she’s down, she fights for every point. I love to watch her play, so aggressive. She is playing such unbelievable tennis. I think I can learn a lot from that, because I am trying to play aggressive too.”
As for her strategy in coping with the best serve in the history of women’s tennis, she admitted, “I think some times just guessing where the ball is coming, just go for it, trying to make some chances.”
Venus said of her lauded sister, “She deserves every single thing that she has. At the same time, she’s not focused on the attention, she’s focused on her tennis. So she’s focused on the important things, and the results show. She always did well. She did well in her first tournament. She beat three top-10 players in a row and then lost only because she twisted her ankle. There’s no doubt she took off like a rocket.
“I always thought she was a great player when we were very small, so that’s something that was apparent to me a long time ago. And I think [it’s] just confidence. When you get into that habit of winning, it gets – I don’t know if you call it contagious – but it gets to be a habit. She’s developed an unbelievable habit.”
Venus insists they never discuss the history that awaits Serena here, which is hard to believe. “We never talk tennis. I didn’t ask her. I figure she knows what she’s doing. I mean, what am I going to tell her? Some times it’s better not to talk too much and be able to go into a match with a clear head.
“You don’t need too many people saying different things. Before individual matches we always give each other advice. But, no, maybe I should ask her. I don’t know. I think she feels good really. I don’t see any signs of her not feeling good.”
Nor did anyone on Arthur Ashe on Monday night.
This article was written by Kevin Mitchell at Flushing Meadows, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 1st September 2015 02.28 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010